Go ahead and gripe. And moan and groan and have some whine with your cheese. Go ahead and complain about Kentucky’s 24-17 season-opening win at Southern Mississippi on Saturday. Those are all good things.
Those reactions mean, as a Kentucky football fan, you’re no longer satisfied with merely winning a football game.
And that’s the next step in the process of building a program, one that strives to be a consistent winner and take that elusive next step. In other words, a football program with expectations. You know, a football program that aspires to beating the better teams on its schedule.
No offense to Southern Miss, but the Golden Eagles are not one of the better teams on UK’s 2017 football schedule. Southern Miss is not Florida or Georgia or Louisville or Tennessee, all ranked in the preseason Top 25. The Golden Eagles are probably not South Carolina, Missouri, Mississippi, Mississippi State or Vanderbilt, either.
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So the consternation I sense from UK fans who were unhappy with the Cats’ lack of dominance at “The Rock” on Saturday comes from judging this Kentucky football team against those future opponents. And in the eyes of plenty, UK’s level of play Saturday did not meet the standard needed to beat those teams.
And on that, the coaches might agree.
“There’s gonna be things to clean up,” said head coach Mark Stoops.
It also speaks to where the program stands in Stoops’ fifth year as a coach, one that won seven games last season, that beat Louisville and reached a bowl game. The bar has been raised.
That’s a good thing.
This isn’t to discount what Stoops had to say Saturday. In the postgame press conference, the coach said he knew opinions might vary on the performance — opinions that differed from him — but the coach loved that his team didn’t play its best and yet still found a way to win.
“We’ve got to get some of those things ironed out,” said the coach. “That’s what I love about it. It was just a hard-fought victory. It was a thing of beauty to me.”
It reminded you of when Stoops’ cohort on the opposite end of campus, John Calipari, the guy who coaches basketball, says the thing he loves most is when his team shoots 30 percent and is still able to tough out a victory.
Kentucky will have to play better, of course. As Stoops stated, improvement is needed on several fronts.
His defense stood out Saturday, especially against the run. A UK defense that ranked 107th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game last season allowed just 55 to the Golden Eagles. Ito Smith, the swift Southern Miss back who gashed UK for 173 yards last season, was limited to 37 yards on 16 carries.
On the flip side, UK’s pass defense gave up 309 yards. Cornerback Chris Westry was beaten badly on a play in which he was called for pass interference and the Southern Miss receiver still made the catch. UK defensive backs came out on the short end of a couple of 50-50 balls. Some ironing is required there.
Most of the problems were on offense, however. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran called the direct-snap wildcat play at least 10 times without much luck. He admitted afterward he was probably “too stubborn” and probably should have searched deeper into the playbook.
The revamped offensive line struggled, especially after center Bunchy Stallings got banged up, though he did return later. The mixing and matching and experimenting fell victim to a strong Southern Miss defensive line that was effective using twists and stunts — techniques that force an offensive line to communicate.
Then again, it was a first game. And first games are always tricky. You need only go back to 2016. UK led Southern Miss 35-10 in the second quarter and lost 44-35. The 2017 opener was better than that, much better, even if many UK football fans were looking for something even better than that.
And that’s OK. In fact, it’s good. High hopes require high standards.
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
Kentucky football 2017